February 5, 2009

Exhibit showcases first black settlers' influence on Indio

Indio resident Leah Jordan points to a picture of her sons riding horses while discussing her family's history in Indio. Jordan's family moved to Indio in 1928. Her uncle, John Nobles, was the founder of Nobles Ranch in Indio. (Crystal Chatham The Desert Sun)

Aldrich M. Tan
The Desert Sun

As a young black girl in Indio in the early 1940s, R. Gene Wilson spent summers waking up at 5 a.m. to pick onions, grapes and chop cotton under the blazing sun.

It was her family's way of surviving life in the desert at a time when the only jobs available to blacks were farmers and housekeepers.

Wilson, now 75, reflects on those times decades later as she puts together her family's history poster for the upcoming “Black Pioneer Showcase” at the Coachella Valley Museum and Cultural Center.

The monthlong exhibit opens Saturday and highlights the historical contributions of the local black community. It features about 75 items of significance to Indio's black history, including family photos and heirlooms dating back to the early settlement of Indio.

“We wanted to show that the black people of the Coachella Valley didn't just sit down,” said exhibit committee president George Thomas of Indio. “We helped develop this town.”

An opening-day celebration with speakers and performers is scheduled from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday at the center, 82-616 Miles Ave., Indio.

With wrinkled dark hands from years of agricultural labor and service to the school district, Wilson glued the last picture to the poster at her Indio home recently.

“It means the world to me,” Wilson said of the showcase.

“We can get out and show our kids and grandchildren what our forefathers have done here in the valley, and how we have poured out their lives here.”

A committee began work on the exhibit seven months ago to debut for Black History Month, which has been held in February since it was established in 1976. The historic inauguration of a black president has given the committee more drive to show their history.

Jesse Siess, executive director of the Coachella Valley Museum and Cultural Center, said it's difficult to tell exactly how many black people were in Indio when the city was incorporated in 1930 because, at the time, racial minorities were often not accounted for by the census.

The first stop for many black residents starting their lives in Indio was Nobles Ranch, Siess said. John Nobles came to Indio from Oklahoma as the first black farmer to own land here in 1922.

Facing housing discrimination, many black settlers turned to Nobles, who divided his land and sold it to the earliest pioneers so that they could support themselves, Siess said.

Leah Woods Jordan, Nobles' niece, remembered her uncle as a kind and helpful man. Her family came to Indio in the 1930s.

Many newcomers to Nobles Ranch, Jordan said, lived in tents until they could raise money to build their own homes.

With time and hard work, black people settled down in Indio. They bought property from Nobles and built churches, such as the African Methodist Episcopal church in April 1930, and homes where they could raise their families.

By the 1990s, there were 87 homes, a public housing project and three churches in the Nobles Ranch area, said Victoria Bailey, author of “Indio Reflections and Visions.”

City takes control

While their grandparents and parents toiled on the fields, the young black children in the 1940s went to integrated schools.

Cora Mayfield, now 58, became Indio High School's first black cheerleader at a time when segregation was seen elsewhere. She said her cousins in Texas were surprised she could attend an integrated school.

“My cousins were shocked that I had gone to school with white people,” she said.

Black residents faced ongoing occupational and housing discrimination, Siess said. Blacks who sought work in the 1960s were referred to blue-collar jobs like janitors and gas station attendants.

Indio's black community faced a setback in 1986 when the city took over the communities established on Nobles Ranch under eminent domain for a proposed expansion of the Indio Fashion Mall next to their neighborhood.

Black people from all over the Coachella Valley protested the city's action for at least three weeks in front of the mall.

“We were infuriated because they were traumatically moving residents who were largely black,” Beaver said. “It was an atrocity.”

Despite the setbacks, the black residents of Indio who remained in the area continued to strive for success.

Mayfield said she feels like her experience in Indio gave her “a good start in life.”

“I was exposed to a lot of opportunities that I probably would not have had living in a segregated state,” she said.

Black residents of Indio started making presentations for Black History Month in the mid-1990s, Siess said.

“A museum should focus on where a community comes from, and we want to show the history of the valley through the people who have helped form the valley,” she said.

The presentations usually consist of speakers and performances, Siess said. What makes this year's showcase unique is the establishment of an exhibit at the museum led by city residents.

Thomas said he feels the right group of people came together at the right time to make this type of project work.

On display through February, the exhibit traces the journey of the settlement of the first black residents of Indio as farmers of the desert and the lives of their descendents.

Johnson brought rusting silvery cups called “water cups” to use in the exhibit. Farmworkers used the cups to drink water when they were working in the fields, she said.

“These are artifacts that show where we come from,” she said, “so we can appreciate what we have now.”

If the project is successful, the group plans to expand the exhibit to include black pioneers and families who live in other parts of the Coachella Valley, Thomas said.